A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Archive for August, 2010

The McLuhan collection agency

Marshall McLuhan (1960s, age 50s).  Ask and ye shall receive!

Today I sent a letter to a client who has not paid my speaking fee.  I told them I felt like the parrot in the story who had been crossed with a tiger.  “Polly want a cracker.  AND I MEAN NOW!”   I hope they got the message.

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  I wonder

Perhaps only McLuhan would have sent letter like this.  I’d like to think it did the trick.  [For more on McLuhan’s unique sense of humour]

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan:  The medium and the messenger, 1989, p. 189.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, August 17th, 2010
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The power of names

Marshall McLuhan (July 1968, age 57). Poor old Nix-on

The Nixon campaign has been consulting me on the best ways Richard Nixon can use the media to win this year’s race for the Presidency.  I told them that he should put his campaign ads on radio rather than TV.   A hot character like Nixon is ideally suited to radio.  His hot-stuff will not go over well on TV.  If they insist on putting him on TV, I told them, they should make sure he says as little as possible.  He should be as silent as his beloved ‘silent majority.’  That should cool him down.  Unfortunately, Nixon can do nothing about his name.  The ‘Nix’ sound in Nixon has a pronounced negative subliminal effect on voters.  A name of course is a medium.  And the medium is always the message.  You can turn off your TV but you can’t turn off your name.  Names are numbing blows from which we never recover.

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  Good old Mars-hall?

Douglas Coupland has a good deal of irreverent fun with Marshall McLuhan’s name.  He places “the name Marshall McLuhan into commonly available internet name generators” and generates for example McLuhan’s porn star name (Pud Bendover), pimp name (Slick Tight) and drag name (Vanilla Thunderstorm).  He also uses a word scrambler to break and reassemble ‘Marshall McLuhan’ into a large number of three and four letter phrases such as ‘alarm small hunch,’ ‘clam hah small um,’ and ‘call sham man hurl.’   But these exercises – entertaining as they are in a smirking way – do not tell us much if anything about McLuhan or the power of names.

However, a case can be made that McLuhan may have suffered from a negative subliminal effect associated with his name in the more pedestrian way he alleges Nixon did.  McLuhan’s name was played with by his academic enemies who mocked him by calling him ‘McLoon.’  How much of a blow was this?  Did it encourage his readers to view his ideas as loony?  On the other hand his boyhood nick name was ‘Mars’ the Roman God of War (from Mars-hall) which may on balance lent him considerable subliminal strength and contributed to his combative nature.

What does your name say about you?  Or not?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan, 2009, pp. 2-9.

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger, 1989, p. 3.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, August 14th, 2010
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Alter your reality.

Marshall McLuhan (Fall 1968, age 57).  The extensions of us

It is obvious that media – in fact all of our artifacts – are extensions of us.  The wheel extends the foot, clothing extends our skin.  What is not obvious is the number and subtlety of the ways they extend us.

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  The mind is opened

Philip Marchand says that the power of McLuhan as a teacher is that his “classes held the promise of permanently altering one’s appreciation of some aspect of reality.” (p. 3.)  To get a hint of the effect of McLuhan as a teacher try this experiment.  Take a five dollar bill out of your wallet.  What do you see?  What parts of us does money enhance or extend?  Make a list.

Here is part of the list McLuhan comes up with in chapter 14 of Understanding Media.

Trade and choice – spending

Power

The price system

Specialization

Work and skill

Wishes and desires

Persuasion

The storage of value – saving

Information

The number sense

Or consider the number of extensions there are for our skin.

Clothing

Buildings

Central heating

Power

Attractiveness

Identity

Can you walk downtown and not see the big buildings differently?  As enhancers of both our ordinary lives and the stuff dreams are made of?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The extensions of man, 1964, chapter 14.

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger, 1989, p. 3.

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Michael Hinton Friday, August 13th, 2010
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What’s the good word?

Marshall McLuhan (1973, age 61-62).  “Dad, you’re in the dictionary!”

“Of course I’m in the dictionary, Eric, I’m looking up a word.  Here it is, ‘corniche’ from the French – ‘a road along the edge of a cliff.’  Exactly where we are today, literally and metaphorically, don’t you think?

“No Dad, I don’t mean you’re using the dictionary, I mean you’re actually in it.  There are now words based on you.  ‘McLuhanism,’ McLuhanize,’ ‘McLuhanite,’ and get this ‘McLuhanesque.’

“Well that’s vurry satisfying.  Northrop Frye isn’t in the dictionary is he?  But hold on, which dictionary?  the Oxford?”

“No, The Barnhart Dictionary of New English Since 1963, first edition, 1973.”

“What a shame.  I’d have preferred the Oxford.  After all, it is the Dictionary.”

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  McLuhan would have been pleased

McLuhan did make it into the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was published in 1989.  Unfortunately he did not live to see it.  However, it is safe to say that he would undoubtedly have taken great pride in this mark of the power of his influence on what he considered to be the most powerful of all mediums, our language.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading

The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, August 12th, 2010
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Would you buy a used car from this man?

Marshall McLuhan (August, 1967, age 56).  We’re in the money!

Today I signed a deal with Eugene Schwartz.  The Marshall McLuhan Dew-Line Newsletter is destined to make McLuhan Inc. a tidy sum of money.  The newsletter according to our ad copy will be “a startling, shocking Early Warning System for our era of instant change!”  Each month the newsletter will deliver “the most vital developments of our day – filled with both immense danger and previously undreamed-of potential.”  What developments?  “The Teen-age drop out,”  “The Ghetto Rebellion,” “The super-urbs” replacing our cities.  Here are some of the pressing questions of the day the newsletter will answer.  “Why do Negro youngsters in Watts say ‘Why should I interrupt my education to go to school?  Why did IBM spend thousands of dollars with Dr. McLuhan to devise a sensory profile of their executives?  Why have advertising agencies become the most effective educational institutions in our society?”  I can’t wait to hear my answers.

Me (August, 2010, age 58). They’re in something else!

The first edition of the monthly newsletter was mailed to roughly 4,000 subscribers in July 1968 and continued until sometime in 1970.  The subscribers paid $50 a year for the newsletter and McLuhan was promised a minimum of $10,000 in the first year and $20,000 in the second, and his son Eric as editor of the newsletter was promised $15,000 a year and a top-floor office on Madison Avenue. [For more]

The newsletter had three problems. (See Marchand’s biography of McLuhan)

  1. Much of the content was vintage McLuhan, but it did not differ very much from what Mcluhan was saying elsewhere for free.
  2. The newsletter’s advice was general rather than specific and topical.
  3. The newsletter “did nothing but intensify suspicions that McLuhan was a charlatan and a man out to exploit his reputation as a media wizard for every penny he could get.” (p. 228.)

McLuhan made no money out of the venture.  It is hard not to be disappointed in McLuhan.  The harsh part of me says:  The moral is, if you’re going to sell out get the money up front.  The sensitive part of me says:  The moral is, if you’re famous people will try to take advantage of you.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan:  The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, pp. 209, 210, 227-229.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, August 11th, 2010
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What is the problem?

Marshall McLuhan (June 15, 1964, age 52).  Communcation!

Everywhere you turn communication is breaking down: the relations between east and west, government and citizen, teacher and student, and parent and child are in disarray.  And yet the assumption rules that somehow we generally manage to get our meaning across.  In fact we should be assuming exactly the opposite.

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  Communication!

For McLuhan it was obvious that the rapid movement of information in the electric age was responsible for the problems of the 1960s.  Few understood or agreed with him.

Today information moves even more rapidly and arguably our economic, environmental and social problems are even worse.  What remains unchanged is the unwillingness of sensible people to think about our economic, environmental, and social problems as communication or media problems.  Perhaps we need to start.  Because if there is a universal law of communication in the electric age, it is that communication is always breaking down.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

 

Reading

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye, 1987, p. 302.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, August 10th, 2010
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For your information, here is a question.

Marshall McLuhan (1960, age 48/49). The question is:

Why should the sending or receiving of a telegram seem more dramatic than the ringing of a telephone?

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  The sending or receiving of what?

Anyone who has sent or received a telegram can attest to the truth of McLuhan’s observation.

Unfortunately, many of the readers of this blog may find the truth of McLuhan’s observation difficult to grasp because they have never sent or received a telegram.   It is also possible that they have never heard a telephone ring dramatically.  Which raises the question: What is today’s dramatic equivalent of the telegram?  I suspect that the answer is: there isn’t one.  Which raises another question for your information:  Is the history of media impossible?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, p. 150.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, August 7th, 2010
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McLuhan was no gentleman.

Marshall McLuhan (1934 or 35, age 22/24). Tonight I crossed swords with Gertrude Stein.

Gertrude Stein came to Cambridge today to speak on the subject: “I am I because my little dog knows me.”  Naturally, I could not help letting the remark slip, rather loudly I admit, that this is a prime example of the infantile nature of her prose style.  She was not amused.  Stopping mid (child-like) sentence she fixed me with a look, grabbed her umbrella, and made her way through the crowd to where I was standing.  “What,” she said, “are people like you doing here at Cambridge?”  “My dear woman,” I said …

Me (August, 2010, age 58)  What did McLuhan say next?

Unfortunately, we do not know what Marshall McLuhan said next. And it is not clear that this is actually how he found himself crossing swords with Gertrude Stein.

Philip Marchand tells the story this way in his biography of McLuhan.  But Terry Gordon in his biography of McLuhan tells the story very differently.  According to Gordon, McLuhan did not boorishly interrupt Stein’s address.  Instead, Stein spoke boringly and without interruption for an hour.  McLuhan, irritated, waited till the question period to ask what Stein thought of Wyndham Lewis’s thoughts about “the subject of time,” suspecting that it might well get a rise out of Stein because of the length of her talk and her well-known sensitivity to Lewis’s poisonous criticisms of her writing style.

No matter, whoever is more clearly the injured party – McLuhan in the Gordon version, Stein in the Marchand version – McLuhan proves himself to be no gentleman.  And either way, we can still speculate as to what McLuhan might have said next.  Two come-backs come to mind:  “My question exactly;” and “You mean my fallacy is all wrong?” 

What do you think Marshall might have said?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, p. 46.

W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan:  Escape into Understanding, 1997, p. 62.

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Michael Hinton Friday, August 6th, 2010
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Who should I invite?

Marshall McLuhan (1959-1967). The Monday Night Seminar.

Monday nights I like to hold an informal seminar to discuss the breakthroughs we are making in understanding media and think things through.  Someone asked me if we shouldn’t have some sort of admission requirements or selection criteria.  I said certainly not, requirements and criteria will only serve to reduce the intelligence of the group.

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  Pure speculation

Actually I don’t know if Marshall McLuhan said any such thing.  What he says, here, I must admit, is more purely my invention than is traditional on From Marshall and Me.  And for this lack of discipline I apologize.  Yet I imagine this is something McLuhan might have said given his views on the problems created by specialization in academia.  At any rate judging by the remarkable diversity of the people who took part in the Monday Night Seminars he clearly welcomed and encouraged the participation of people from widely different backgrounds and with widely different interests.

For example, here is a list of the participants who attended one Monday night in 1967, as recalled by Bob Rodgers, who at the time was a graduate student in English at Toronto and a next door neighbor of McLuhan’s on Wells Hill Avenue: an anthropologist (Ted Carpenter), three beatniks, a young man with a guitar, an Eagle Scout, an academic couple (Wilfred and Sheila Watson), a man in advertising, a CBC news announcer (Stanley Burke), a magician, a fortune teller, an Inuit carver, a wrestler (Whipper Billy Watson), and three graduate students.  I don’t know how smart this group turned out to be, but the conversation was undoubtedly stimulating.

And, as those of you have been following this blog know, I was at University of Toronto in the 70s.  Wish I’d gone.

Cordially, “Marshall” and Me

Reading

Bob Rogers, “In the Garden with the Guru,” Literary Review of Canada, January 1, 2008

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Michael Hinton Thursday, August 5th, 2010
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What’s art?

Marshall McLuhan (1970s?).  Of course …

I was chatting with the artist Eric Wesselow.  I asked him, “What is art?  He started in on the fact that etymologically, art simply means something that is made.

“Actually,” I told him, “art is what you can get away with.”

He looked somewhat taken aback.  So I asked him, “What is a portrait?  “A portrait,” I said, “is the picture of a person where there is always something wrong with the mouth.”

Me (August, 2010, age 58).  And yet …

I have always found these oddball definitions funny.  And perhaps that’s all they are.  However they also have a ring of truth.  The second calls to mind the most iconoclastic portrait in western culture – the Mona Lisa – the first has crossed the mind of anyone who has ever walked through a gallery of modern art.   At any rate the next time I go to an art gallery, I’m going to find it hard not to think of McLuhan’s definitions.

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading

Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan, 1994, p. 222.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, August 4th, 2010
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